Archive: Issue No. 123, November 2007

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'C30': P.J. Simelane Secondary School Project by David Andrew and Marcus Neustetter
by Michael Smith

A few months ago ArtThrob invited artist and arts educational theorist David Andrew, senior lecturer in the the Wits School of Arts, to submit a piece with the title 'Below the Radar', in which he reported on and discussed various initiatives occurring in and around Johannesburg. These educational initiatives are important, but tend to happen outside of the scope of SA art reporting, so it's exciting to be able to report on an update in the status of one such project Andrew ran with Marcus Neustetter, art teacher Lucas Matjila and learners from the P.J Simelane School in Dobsonville, Soweto.

Andrew speaks of a long term interest in the educational potential of having artists present in schools. Part of the Wits School of Arts partnership with the Curriculum Development Programme during the period 2003 - 5 incorporated this idea of having artists in schools. With this 2007 project Andrew and Neustetter were interested in revisiting this idea to see if they could implement something similar. Part of their concern was how to facilitate greater access to visual artists for learners, mindful of the dearth of art teachers in many schools. Andrew's sense is that the artist's presence in the classroom does something very particular, that it becomes a transformative element within that space in a manner that normal art teaching does not.

While cautious of grandiose claims in this regard due to the difficulty in quantifying results, he nevertheless mentioned some of his initial ideas to Neustetter, artist, curator and one half of the Trinity Session. Neustetter had similar ideas about the possibilities of going into classrooms and working in an interventionist way with learners. One of his ideas even involved working with the sound of the intercom, liberating it from its administrative function and opening it up for creative use by learners.

One strong commonality between Andrew and Neustetter was an interest in creating a space in which art teachers could function more like artists and less like bureaucrats. Andrew reiterates the ideas of philosopher Félix Guattari, who asked what would happen if the classroom became more like a work of art. With this in mind, the two teamed up with Matjila, with the 'buy in' of about 40 learners and the school principal, Vera Makhubela, to initiate a four month project at P.J. Simelane Secondary School. The project was also facilitated with the assistance of Swedish exchange students Tova Björkquist, Sofie Lind, Emma Ekeland and Elisabet Jonsved from the Konstfack University College of Art, Carft and Design in Stockholm. Andrew has a long-standing relationship with the school, in his words a 'standard township ex-DET school'. While the school offers art to Grade 12, the art centre struggles with insufficient resources.

The project identified a number sites at the school for possible intervention and transformation. The first was the classroom, which Andrew says was thought of as a laboratory of ideas from which learners, teacher and artists would move their endeavours around the school grounds. The classroom was transformed from a drab, anonymous interior to something inspiring, with learners working on walls, empty pinboards and even the ceiling, mapping pedestrian traffic flow around the buildings.

Another site was the school library, enlivened with a large and compelling mural. Images learners found in library books were traced and painted onto the wall, and Pop-style icon images very characteristic of Andrew's work were inserted at intervals.

Elsewhere, more temporary interventions were made with institutional furniture: a tree stump in a courtyard was rebuilt into an installation-style tree with bright orange plastic stackable chairs. Andrew speaks of the importance of using visual languages like installation to challenge those, learners and teachers alike, who have no prior experience of such endeavours.

A 'brick poetry' interactive installation was created at an area known as 'The Back of the Moon' on the school grounds, an area frequented by learners wishing to smoke and gamble away from teacher surveillance. Words in various languages were inscribed onto individual bricks from the rubble that occupies this space; the bricks were then arranged according to the whims of the various groups of students that passed through that area, often with revealing results.

Overall, the emphasis of Andrew and Neustetter's project is one of working inside conditions of paucity of resources in a manner that served both to challenge and inspire perceptions of art, space and education. The resulting exhibition at the Sandton Civic Gallery showcases collaborative artworks made by the learners and artists during this project, and reflects their development as a result of this project. Art Bank Johannesburg, under the leadership of CEO Antoinette Murdoch, pledged to purchase works emerging from the C30 process for its collection, making the transition to commercial application of skills far more palpable for the learners concerned.